Updated: May 7, 2021
Bartholomew Roberts never intended on becoming a pirate, but like so many Welshmen that came before him, he was destined for a life at sea. Born John Roberts in 1682, he is thought to have first sailed at the early age of 13, in 1695, but there is no further record of him until 1718, when he was listed as the mate of a Barbados sloop. It is unclear at what point he changed his name, but it was not uncommon for pirates to adopt aliases. In this case, it is often thought that his choice referenced well-known buccaneer Bartholomew Sharp, who had sailed with Henry Morgan, William Dampier, and Richard Sawkins, to name just a few. A later moniker - Black Bart - as the pirate is sometimes called, was adopted posthumously by historians but was never used during his lifetime.
In 1719, the slave ship Princess, onboard which Roberts was second mate, was captured by pirate Howell Davis, who forced members of the crew to join the pirates. Davis, also a Welshman, quickly discovered Roberts' abilities as a sailor and navigator, and took to consulting him. While Roberts was initially reluctant to become a pirate, he soon discovered the many advantages of this new lifestyle. When comparing this to life aboard slave ships and merchants, Capt. Charles Johnson reports him as saying:
"In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labor... No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto."
- A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates
When his captain, Howell Davis, was ambushed and killed by the Portuguese on the Island of Principe, the crew elected Roberts their new captain. This, a mere six weeks after his initial capture. As his first order of business, he led the crew back to Principe and landed on the island in darkness. Led by Roberts, the pirates killed a large portion of the male population, then plundered and pillaged items of value. Shortly thereafter, he captured several ships in quick succession. Indeed, Roberts solidified his position as a pirate captain of note very early in his career.
(Roberts' first pirate flag, showing himself and Death holding an hourglass)
One of the many interesting things that set pirates apart was their idea of adopting Articles before each voyage. These are more commonly known as the Pirates' Code, recently made famous in popular culture as referenced in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. These articles of agreement were voted on by the crew, and once everyone had made their mark, they were considered the governing law of the ship. These articles significant because they applied solely to a specific ship for the duration of a specific voyage. Additionally, they were rules that were independent of any sovereign nation or government, applicable only to the members of the crew. As was frequently the case, any sailors from captured vessels that wished to join the pirates could agree to the articles, sign their mark, and were then considered a full-fledged part of the crew.
Through the course of history, only very few sets of pirate articles have survived. One of the main reasons being that when facing capture or surrender, pirate captains would burn the articles so that they could not later be used against them during trial. However, one of the few remaining intact Articles comes from Capt. Bartholomew Roberts. As you'll read below, these articles not only addressed the regulation of the operation of the ship, but also compensation for injury during battle, and even various degrees of punishment for insubordination or cowardice.
I. Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity (not an uncommon thing among them) makes it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.
II. Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes because, (over and above their proper share) they were on these occasions allowed a shift of clothes: but if they defrauded the company to the value of a dollar in plate, jewels, or money, marooning was their punishment. If the robbery was only betwixt one another, they contented themselves with slitting the ears and nose of him that was guilty, and set him on shore, not in an uninhabited place, but somewhere, where he was sure to encounter hardships.
III. No person to game at cards or dice for money.
IV. The lights and candles to be put out at eight o'clock at night: if any of the crew, after that hour still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck.
V. To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlass clean and fit for service.
VI. No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death; (so that when any fell into their hands, as it chanced in the Onslow, they put a sentinel immediately over her to prevent ill consequences from so dangerous an instrument of division and quarrel; but then here lies the roguery; they contend who shall be sentinel, which happens generally to one of the greatest bullies, who, to secure the lady's virtue, will let none lie with her but himself.)
VII. To desert the ship or their quarters in battle, was punished with death or marooning.
VIII. No striking one another on board, but every man's quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol. (The quarter-master of the ship, when the parties will not come to any reconciliation, accompanies them on shore with what assistance he thinks proper, and turns the disputant back to back, at so many paces distance; at the word of command, they turn and fire immediately (or else the piece is knocked out of their hands). If both miss, they come to their cutlasses, and then he is declared the victor who draws the first blood.)
IX. No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared one thousand pounds. If in order to this, any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have eight hundred dollars, out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionately.
XI. The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour.
As you can see above, pirate ships of the 17th and 18th century were arguably examples of the first true democracies; they were also some of the first to create a welfare system for injured crew members, as referenced in Article IX: "If in order to this, any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have eight hundred dollars out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionately."
Bartholomew Roberts love of fine clothing and jewelry made him the archetypical pirate captain, but where others enjoyed copious amounts or rum, Roberts is reported to have preferred drinking tea. In fact, he strongly detested the idea of drunkenness at sea. Ironically, this level of drunkenness would ultimately lead to his demise when the majority of his crew was intoxicated before their engagement with HMS Swallow. Nonetheless, Roberts met his fate by dressing himself for battle, as he often did:
"Roberts himself made a gallant figure, at the time of the engagement, being dressed in a rich crimson damask waistcoat and breeches, a red feather in his hat, a gold chain round his neck, with a diamond cross hanging to it, a sword in his hand, and two pairs of pistols slung over his shoulders..."
- A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates
(An image of Roberts depicting the pirate dressed in his finest attire, adorned with pistols and sword)
At the time of his death, Roberts was arguably the most successful pirate during the Golden Age of Piracy. While Samuel Bellamy takes the prize for most cargo stolen, Roberts feat of capturing over 470 ships in his short, 2-3 year reign would go unmatched.